Dark Warrior Unbroken, by Alexis Morgan
- ISBN: 9781416563440 | 141656344X
- Cover: Paperback
- Copyright: 7/28/2009
Lena Wilson was a woman with regrets. Her shoulders sagged as the day's heat and her high heels made the short walk even harder than expected. She'd worn dress clothes out of respect, but her usual jeans and boots might have been a smarter choice. Lord knows, the person she was going to see wouldn't have cared.
Pausing at the top of a rise, she pulled out the simple map the caretaker had given her. She was almost there.
"One, two, three..."
She counted off the headstones to alleviate the oppressive silence, her footsteps slowing as she approached the end of the row, her goal but a few feet away. She crossed that last painful distance and sank to her knees on the cool grass.
Her hand reached out to trace the inscription on the polished granite marker: a name, a couple of dates, a Bible verse, a fireman's badge. Not nearly enough to define the man who was buried there. Maynard Cooper had been her friend, her father figure, her conscience.
At long last the tears came, flowing down her cheeks in hot streaks.
"Coop, I'm so sorry."
Her throat closed, damming up the flood of apologies she owed to the man who'd been laid to rest on the pastoral hillside overlooking his beloved city. As the tears tapered off and her breathing eased, peace slowly stole over her. Coop had never judged her as harshly as she judged herself, but the self-forgiveness she needed would have to be earned.
That she'd missed his funeral hadn't been her fault, but missing out on the chance to heal the breach between them was. She placed her palm over his name, needing that small connection as she contemplated her next step.
If she couldn't make peace with her old friend, she would do the one thing no one else had been able to: avenge his death.
With a new sense of purpose, Lena rose to her feet and walked away, making plans. Somewhere in this city there was a killer with Maynard Cooper's blood on his hands. She wouldn't rest until the bastard was brought to justice.
The shrill ringing of a phone was Sandor Kearn's least favorite way to wake up, especially when he'd been up late. He didn't know which half of his job he hated more: the frustrating search for the Grand Dame's lost relatives, or his new role as chief enforcer for the Talion warriors Kerry commanded. He covered his eyes with his forearm to block out the sunshine and groped for the phone with his other hand.
When he finally found it, he growled "What?" into the receiver.
Kerry's voice was a mixture of good humor and business. "Sorry, Sandor, did I wake you up?"
"Yeah, you did. Put your husband on the line so I can take my bad mood out on him. When I'm able to be civil, Ranulf can give the phone back to you."
His Dame giggled. He was tempted to point out how undignified that was for the ruler of their people, but that would only encourage her.
"If it's not an emergency, can I call you back in a few?" he said instead. "Right now I won't remember anything you tell me."
"Please tell me you weren't up half the night working again. We've talked about that before, Sandor. You're my Talion, not my slave." She sounded reproachful.
"All right, I won't tell you."
She sighed. "Get up and eat breakfast. Make that lunch -- it's almost noon. When you're feeling human again, come see me."
"Okay. See you in an hour or so." He yawned loudly. "And by the way, I'm not human, and neither are you."
"I'll try to remember that. And an hour will be fine."
When she disconnected the call, he tossed his phone at the table. As it bounced onto the floor, he threw back the covers, then went into the bathroom and cranked the shower on hot. Leaning against the cool tile wall, he let the water pour over him, clearing out the cobwebs better than a cup of coffee.
Kerry knew that he already had a lot on his plate, so whatever was worrying her had to be serious. Well, he'd find out soon enough what it was.
He pulled on jeans and a casual sports shirt, then threw together a sandwich and grabbed a cola to drink on the way. After tossing his briefcase onto the passenger seat, he reached for his sunglasses.
Traffic was light, and he soon reached the gates to her driveway. He punched in his security number, waited as they swung open, then pulled into his usual parking space, alongside an unfamiliar car. Hughes, the butler, opened the front door before Sandor reached the top step. Inside, he headed for the living room, then stopped. Kerry hadn't mentioned the fact that anyone else would be there, so the unfamiliar woman was probably another Kyth who had dropped in to meet the new Dame.
Sandor waited impatiently in the foyer for the visitor to leave. Who was she anyway? He would have remembered meeting someone built like that -- honey blond hair, long legs, narrow waist, and all the right curves. If she was anywhere near as stunning from the front, he might just start drooling. When she finally turned to leave, her piercing blue eyes swept past him, then snapped back to stare into his.
And time stood still.
All of his Talion instincts surged full force, making him want to stop her, to learn her truth before letting her walk out that door. He didn't recognize her as Kyth, but he could have been wrong.
He forced himself to nod politely as she passed. When the door closed behind her, he had the strangest feeling that their paths would cross again and soon.
Kerry was walking out of the other side of the living room as he walked in, leaving only Ranulf waiting to talk to him. The Viking looked hesitant, not an expression Sandor had ever seen on his face before.
"If there's something you want to say, Viking, spit it out. I'm not in the mood for games."
Ranulf 's mouth quirked up in a small grin. "What put a burr up your backside?"
"No sleep. No progress on anything." Gods above, he sounded whiny. "Sorry."
"Don't sweat it." Ranulf turned to stare out the window. "Sometimes things close in on you, especially here in the city. I'm long overdue for some downtime on the mountain, alone with my wife."
"So why don't you and Kerry head up there for a few days? I can hold down the fort."
"She won't go. She worries about you," Ranulf grumbled.
"Damn it, I'm fine." He wasn't and they both knew it. But it was his problem, not theirs.
Ramulf let out a deep breath. "Kerry asked you here about a new problem that's popped up. She needed to make a call but should be off the phone by now."
They found Kerry sitting at the dining room table, immersed in paperwork. She didn't look any happier than Ranulf did.
"Damn it, Kerry, you promised to eat lunch before starting in on that stuff." Ranulf picked up a plate of food and set it directly in front of her. "Now eat or I'll burn those files."
She looked up from the report to glare at him. Her refusal to be intimidated by her warrior husband was one of the many things Sandor liked about the new Dame. Most people took one look at Ranulf and had the good sense to be a little afraid. But Kerry knew she had the man wrapped around her little finger. Ranulf would die before hurting her.
So would Sandor, even though she'd never looked at him as anything but a friend. He sometimes wondered about her taste in men, but he couldn't question the depth of her feelings for Ranulf, or his for her. Their relationship had been tempered in the heat of battle, a life-and-death struggle that had come close to destroying all three of them.
As she dutifully picked up the sandwich, she asked, "Did you already eat, Sandor?"
"Yes." He sat in his usual chair and reached for the coffeepot. "Some caffeine would be good, though. Can I top yours off ?"
She held out her cup. "Sorry to have disturbed your beauty sleep."
"It's my job to be at your beck and call." He softened the comment with a smile. "Finish your lunch and we'll talk."
She gave him the same disgusted look she'd given her husband. Like many Kyth who'd grown up unaware of their true heritage, Kerry had been a loner before fate had catapulted her from graphic artist to ruler of their kind in a matter of days. She wasn't used to having people fuss over her, much less bearing responsibility for an entire race. It was a wonder she was coping as well as she was.
Ranulf had left the room, and now returned with his own sandwich and a plate of cookies. Sandor snagged a couple for himself. The Viking wasn't the only one with a sweet tooth.
When Hughes checked in a few minutes later to see if they needed anything else, Kerry dropped the rest of her sandwich on the plate and handed it to him. "Thank you. That hit the spot."
It was clear that Ranulf thought she should've eaten more, but she shot him a look that said she'd had enough of his hovering.
It was time to get down to business. "So what's up, Kerry? Ranulf said you had something to talk to me about."
"Actually, a couple of things now. That woman who just left has the potential of becoming a problem for us."
"Why? Who is she?"
"Her name is Lena Wilson, and she was a friend of Maynard Cooper's. She said she's investigating his death and wanted to talk to us about it. She's looking for his killer."
That wasn't good. "Why would she think you were involved?"
They hadn't had anything to do with the fire investigator's death. But the three of them had combined forces to execute his murderer, a renegade Talion warrior and Sandor's lifelong friend.
"I don't know that she did," Kerry said. "I think she was on a fishing expedition."
Ranulf looked at his wife. "She tried to read my thoughts while she was here. I suspect she did the same to you."
"What? You didn't tell me that!"
"I figured you could tell."
"Well, you figured wrong. Need I remind you that I've only recently learned something like that was even possible?" She looked more disgusted than upset. "If she did try to read me, she couldn't have gotten far. I'm a lot better at keeping my shields up. If they'd been breached, I think I'd know."
"If it's any comfort, her efforts were pretty clumsy. I doubt she's had any training."
"She's Kyth?" Sandor hadn't sensed any indication that she was, but their encounter had been brief.
Ranulf shook his head. "Couldn't really tell. If she is, the connection is pretty weak."
"Let me know if she becomes a problem." He wouldn't mind interrogating her thoroughly. "So what else is up, boss?"
Kerry picked up a file folder and shuffled through a stack of newspaper clippings. "I noticed the first of these reports a couple of weeks ago. If it was the only one, I wouldn't think anything about it. But I've found several more incidents mentioned from all over the area, so they're probably not random."
Sandor flipped through the clippings quickly, glancing at the headlines and dates before going back to read through them more carefully. She was right to be concerned. Even if the various police departments hadn't yet connected the dots, a new gang was clearly operating in the Seattle area.
Unlike with most gang-related violence, drugs didn't seem to be involved. On the surface, the victims had little in common other than being mugged. The amount of cash taken had varied from a few bucks to a couple of hundred. Both men and women had been attacked, their ages running from late teens to elderly. The time of the attacks seemed to be limited to afternoon through late evening, although there were exceptions.
None of that would have drawn the attention of the Dame or her Talion enforcer. Petty crime had been around since the dawn of time. What made this crime spree different was the victims' physical condition after they'd been robbed.
The police described them as dizzy, vague, confused, weak, stumbling, exhausted, and so on. To anyone outside the Kyth, the symptoms would probably be written off as shock from being robbed, but they made Sandor's blood run cold and then hot. He lifted his eyes to meet his Dame's worried gaze.
A renegade Kyth -- it had to be. There was no other explanation that made sense. Worse, it could be more than one, since the victims' descriptions varied too much for the same person to be behind all the attacks. Sandor spread out the clippings and reached for a lined tablet to write on, dimly aware of Kerry and Ranulf leaving. Once he had the facts organized, he'd turn to his computer to delve deeper. With luck, he'd have a handle on what was going on and a plan of action to present by the end of the day.
For violent crimes against humanity, the Kyth justice system had only one punishment -- death. And it was his job to carry out that sentence. He was still haunted by memories of his first execution, a renegade he'd once called friend. The darkness he'd drawn into his soul that night still prowled inside him, reminding Sandor what he was capable of.
Though they'd had no choice but to execute Bradan, the price Sandor had paid had been very high.
As a job description, executioner pretty much sucked. But if more Kyth had gone rogue, he would kill the bastards. Rolling his shoulders to get the kinks out, Sandor started writing again.
Lena tossed her half-eaten pizza slice in the trash and put the box with the remainder in the small hotel fridge. Lately, nothing had much taste. Coop's death had cast a pall over her world, dimming even the simplest pleasures.
She was battling depression mixed with an obsession, and neither problem would go away until Coop's killer was behind bars. Talking to a shrink wouldn't solve these problems, and her body's reaction to medications was too unpredictable, usually making her sicker than the ailment they were supposed to cure.
Lena got out her spiral notebook to record her findings so far. She'd already gone over the details of the dance club fire Coop had been investigating. After leaving the cemetery, she'd gone directly to see Kerry Thorsen, the chief witness at the fire.
The interview had netted mixed results. Kerry had seemed genuine in her sorrow over Coop's death, but confirmed that their acquaintance had been short and strictly professional. Kerry's grimfaced behemoth of a husband, Ranulf Thorsen, had loomed beside his wife as both denied any knowledge of Maynard Cooper's murder.
They were lying. Maybe neither had had a direct hand in Coop's death, but her gut told her they'd known more than they were telling her. Desperate to learn those secrets, she'd dropped her inner shields and tried to reach past their surface thoughts to delve deeper into their minds.
All she'd gotten from Kerry was an affirmation that the woman had liked Coop very much and had truly regretted his death. Her husband had immediately blocked Lena's efforts to probe his thoughts, leaving her feeling as if she'd been slammed against a brick wall. A gleam in his eyes had suggested that he had not only been aware of her efforts but found them amusing.
The experience had left her badly shaken. She'd broken her personal vow to never use her gift again, since doing so had cost her so much the last time. And not only had she failed to garner any answers but she'd also brought herself to the attention of someone whose powers obviously eclipsed her own.
Before she'd been able to figure out her next step, a handsome, dark-haired man had appeared in the doorway behind her. Relieved at the opportunity to make her escape, Lena had quickly thanked her hosts for their time and followed their butler toward the door. What kind of people had a butler, anyway?
The new arrival had briefly held her gaze before silently walking past her. During that brief connection, she'd sensed a power in him that had sent high-octane energy bubbling through her veins. The sensation hadn't been totally pleasant, and left a taint of darkness in its wake. It seemed she wasn't the only hunter in the crowd.
Who was he? Hours later, she still couldn't get him out of her mind. Once she exhausted her other leads, maybe he'd be worth checking out. The finely honed instincts that made Lena such a good investigator were telling her she hadn't seen the last of the handsome stranger.
She began taking off her good clothes, and sighed with relief to shed her panty hose. Her next stop was the ruins of the fire, and she wasn't about to wear a skirt and heels to rummage around in ashes and debris. After dressing in her rattiest jeans and a chambray work shirt, she pulled on her steel-toed boots. Normally she would've worn a hard hat, but there hadn't been room for one in her suitcase.
Picking up her clipboard, she tucked her room key and a digital camera into her shirt pocket. The dance club was within easy walking distance and the exercise would do her good. Then she headed out to learn what she could of her friend's violent death, dreading facing the gruesome site.
Though the ashes had been cold for weeks, her well-trained nose picked up their scent from a block away. Good. She'd been worried that the owners would have already hired a contractor to start the rebuilding process. In fact, it was odd that they hadn't. Although the cause of the fire had been arson, nothing indicated that the owners had been involved. She added that anomaly to the list of things that needed checking into.
From where she stood, the remnants of the fire looked undisturbed. The area was cordoned off with rope and signs warning off trespassers, but nothing was going to stop her from seeing where Coop had died. If anyone came along, she had her badge with her. It was for a fire department three thousand miles away, but hopefully no one would notice.
Ducking under the rope, she made her approach cautiously, taking in general impressions before focusing on any details. The fire had definitely burned bright and hot. Considering how little was left of the building, it was hard to believe that no one had died in the fire that night. There had been only a few minor treat-and-release injuries and one woman hurt badly enough to require hospitalization. That was nothing short of a miracle in a blaze this size.
According to the reports a friend at the fire department had slipped her, the person most responsible for getting everyone out safely was Kerry Thorsen. Not only had she kept a cool head -- a hard thing to do even for experienced firefighters -- but she'd actually carried a couple of people out herself. Given her petite size, how was that even possible? Lena would have been tempted to write the report off as an exaggeration, but there had been too many witnesses.
One puzzle after another.
The fire had started at the front of the club and burned toward the back, driving the trapped customers and employees before its fury. If the arsonist had blocked the rear exit, the death toll would have numbered in the dozens. Lena shuddered. During her career, she'd seen her share of horrific sights, but nothing this bad. Not yet.
Circling around to the back, she studied the parking lot, noting the alley from which the arsonist was purported to have watched the fire. Not only was Kerry Thorsen the heroine that night; she'd also been the one to spot the alleged arsonist. Coincidence? Maybe, but Lena didn't buy it. Kerry definitely knew more about the fire than she was letting on.
It was time to step inside the burned-out shell of the building. Ordinarily Lena wouldn't hesitate to cross the threshold to learn the fire's story, but this crime scene was different. She ruthlessly shut down her secret abilities, determined to evaluate the scene through the five senses she shared with the rest of humanity. She started by taking a deep breath.
Scent: the smells of charred wood and other chemicals had faded, but they were still pungent enough to clog her sinuses. That was normal.
Sound: nothing helpful there, not without dropping her guard, but she wasn't ready to do that yet.
Touch: nothing noteworthy. Again, she'd need her more specialized senses to learn much from a cold scene like this one.
Taste: there was a faint chemical flavor to the air, which was to be expected. The flames had devoured plastics, wood, metal, paper, and cloth. The resulting hodgepodge of smoke and ash was bound to stain the atmosphere for some time to come.
Sight: her fireman's eyes took in the details, reading the fire department's attack on the blaze as if it were a motion picture playing out before her. Other than the cause of the fire, there was nothing to distinguish the scene from a hundred others she'd investigated.
Using the graph paper she always carried on her clipboard, she sketched the layout of the club as she took measurements, making notes of anything of potential interest. There wasn't much, especially since she wasn't even sure what she was looking for. Something about this fire had been worth a man's life, but nothing stood out.
After she was satisfied with her notes, she took a photo survey of the building, inside and out. She'd stop at the local drugstore later and make enlarged prints to study.
As she finished with the routine stuff, it was time to bring out the big guns, though the thought made her queasy. Her secret abilities had been at the root of the breach between her and Coop, and she'd sworn off using them ever again. Now, for the second time in one day, she would break that promise.
She picked the cleanest stretch of wall she could find to lean against, hoping it would help ground her as she stripped away her mental protections. When she opened her eyes, colors were brighter, scents were more pungent, and the air felt heavy on her skin. For a few seconds she savored the experience, the sensations making her feel more alive than she had in ages.
God, she'd forgotten how good it felt -- and that was the danger. Over time, it had become way too easy to depend on the extra sight, letting her mind fill in the blank spots rather than doing the grunt work of investigating. And innocent people had paid the price for her hubris.
She squashed the bitter memories, not wanting the past to taint the present. Concentrating on the immediate area, she began to reconstruct the fire through the images burned into the parts of the club still standing. Her mind recoiled at the cacophony of screams laced with the pounding beat of the music. Pain had etched its own special flavor in the air, and fear tasted dark and foul.
Slowly the sights and sounds began playing out for her like a macabre movie, sometimes showing long, detailed scenes, and sometimes a burst of images that faded too rapidly to see clearly. She absorbed the suffering, panic, and the relief as the escaping dancers filled their lungs with fresh air once they reached the safety of the back parking lot.
Through the fog-thick smoke that made picking out details difficult, she recognized Kerry Thorsen helping a man twice her size toward the exit at the back of the club. She shoved him toward a larger man who'd appeared out of nowhere. Something about the newcomer looked familiar, but the image faded too quickly. Maybe it would come to her later.
As the echo of the smoke continued to thicken, she followed the path the people had taken out of the club and back outside to watch the predictable chaos that was part of any major fire. Fire trucks and aid cars jockeyed for position. Cops directed traffic, shouting for passersby to keep moving along. The injured were assessed and transported -- all of it tragically normal in her world.
She finally spotted Kerry Thorsen again. The image flickered in and out as Kerry stepped out of the back door of the club carrying a larger woman with apparent ease. How had she managed that?
After surrendering her burden, Kerry stopped to look around, obviously searching for someone. Who? Lena wondered. There was no way to tell. She could see images and hear muted sounds, but reading the thoughts of specters was beyond her weird abilities.
Then Lena's heart lurched as she recognized the man headed straight for Kerry. It was Coop! She called out his name before she could help herself. As lifelike as her old friend might look, he wasn't really there. Or anywhere, for that matter. A razor-sharp pain cut through her chest as she watched him fade away.
Copyright © 2009 by Patricia L. Pritchard